Patrick: At its outset, Batwing was something incredibly new for the DC Universe. David Zavimbe is the first to open a Batman Inc. franchise and his is the first series to take place in Africa. The early issues explored dark dark dark themes, toeing the line of exploitation, but this gave these early issues a relevant, almost dangerous feel to them. With two whole issues in Gotham and in the presence of Batman, Nightwing, Robin and Batgirl, Batwing loses its identity, becoming a bland, by-the-numbers comic book adventure.
Nightwing and Robin are already engaged in combat with Steelback and Massacre when Batwing and Batman arrive on the scene. Because it’s dramatically appropriate, Batwing takes his fight with Massacre outside while the Gotham heroes take on the Steelback armor inside the warehouse. While they seem hopelessly out-gunned, Batman’s got Daniel Balogun (the original Steelback) talking them through the steps to activate the suit’s “external shut-down” (why that would ever be necessary is beyond me). Once they succeed in shutting it down (externally), they discover that there’s no one inside – it was being remotely piloted. They also discover a high-pitched tzeeeeeeeeeeeeing that Balogun recognizes as the sound the suit makes before it self-destructs.
Meanwhile, Batwing has Massacre up against the ropes and tells him that he knows who he is: the murderous warlord Keita. A few punches and bat-hooks later, Massacre’s skull-mask is removed and Batwing recognizes the gnarled and battle-weary face of his little brother Isaac. Before David can reveal himself, the armor explodes, apparently giving Massacre a chance to escape.
Following the signal that was remotely controlling the Steelback armor, Batman and Batwing locate Massacre’s boss: the mysterious Redeemer. Turns out he’s just in some abandoned office building in Gotham. The Redeemer ends up being none other than Josiah Kone – the scientist that assembled the Kingdom in the first place. Kone found Isaac alone and feral in the jungle and molded him into a warrior capable of exterminating the Kingdom. It looks for a split second like Batwing is going to kill Kone, but Batman steps in with a stern “No.” Back in the Batcave, David vocalizes his concerns that maybe he’s just too savage and violent wear the cowl, to which Batman responds that he too was born of death.
Let’s start right there, because I can’t really write about the end of this issue without getting into why it really doesn’t work. David Zavimbe is an orphan and former child soldier, and has committed actual war atrocities. By comparison, Bruce is an orphan. Full stop. It’s all well and good for Batman to abstractly claim that the two men share a similar darkness, but it’s just a straight-out lie to suggest that their histories are at all similar. Batman’s pep-talk goes like this: “What I am… was born from death. So we fight David. We fight what’s outside… it helps with what’s within. You’re a hero. And you honor us all with your strength.” That’s vague to the point of not communicating anything. I get the sense that Winick had written to this point and realized he didn’t have a convincing connection between these characters, so he slapped some cliches in Batman’s mouth and called it a day.
And actually, this lack of specificity is pervasive throughout the issue. We mentioned last month that neither Damien or Dick speak in their distinctive voices, but the problem expands in this issue. Not only do Nightwing and Robin say things that are patently out of character, they occasionally say things that don’t even make sense. Take this exchange, for example:
“Our mileage varies?” I’ve never heard anyone say that before. Also, Massacre says “punishment” not “the punishment.” Also, also, why is Dick debating crime fighting philosophy with this guy while under fire from a tank-robot. Also, also, also, it sounds like he’s ending a segment on Reading Rainbow. Also, also, also, also, there’s something I hate about Dick referring to Batman and Batwing as “Bat men” – like he’d ever equate the two heroes.
What’s really frustrating is that I don’t hate this story, but I find the execution to be just piss-poor. The writing is just clunky, obvious and redundant – especially when handling exposition. The emotional moments that do work are carried by the art work. The moment Batwing discovers his little brother is actually Massacre lands with a predictable thud, but Dustin Nguyen’s decision to put David in silhouette (save the oppressively glowing emblem on his chest) and shrink the text effectively projects the “gasp” feeling that the narrative is attempting to deliver.
I want so much more for this title to work and I can’t just write it off as a “bad series.” There are elements of this thing that I genuinely find compelling – even in this issue. The fact that it seems like David was totally gonna kill that guy before Batman put a stop to it is really pretty interesting. I’d like to see Batwing pulled back toward his darker, murder-related impulses, but forced to keep it in check for fear of losing his Bat-funding. There’s also the concept that his greatest nemesis is his long-lost little brother. With that not-at-all-surprising surprise reveal out of the way, perhaps the narrative can explore David’s split loyalties as he continues to protect the DRC from his own brother.
This issue makes a specific point to mention that Deity is still out there. Also, the original Steelback is still alive, and currently hanging out with with Batwing. We need to spend more time figuring out who David Zavimbe is and fleshing out the other characters that populate his world. Borrowing from Batman’s is not cutting it anymore. But Batwing is going to be engaged in Owl nonsense for a few issues more, which means we may have to wait a while before getting back to anything that could make this series special.
How are you feeling, Drew? I normally feel like I defend this title, while you decry it. Are you seeing the potential here or just the flaws? Or do I have it all wrong, and the series has actually found a voice that works for you? Do you want better for this character or is this all there is?
Drew: Oh, I’m definitely seeing mostly flaws, but there is a moment in this issue that really does work for me — one that I suspect you avoided mentioning just so I would have something positive to say here. The issue closes with a moment from David’s past; of him and Isaac sharing fond memories of their parents as they lay in wait for one of Keita’s missions. They share a laugh, even as they brandish their guns, reminding us that these are human beings with real emotions, in spite of their situation.
For me, this human quality is something that this title has been severely lacking. In prior flashbacks, we’re introduced to the Zavimbe boys as unstoppable killing machines; ruthless murderers with an inexplicable objection to killing women and children (but innocent men? FUCK ‘EM). Here, we see the hardness as a front. In fact, we see that Isaac was actively working to keep the boys rooted in their past. It’s a genuine moment elevated by good writing; the repartee between two brothers desperate to remember better times is utterly believable. Unfortunately, knowing that Winick can execute moments like this only makes the rest of the issue all the more frustrating.
I’m with you on Bruce’s pep-talk kind of being bullshit, but I think more importantly, trying to paint these characters with the same brush is a disservice to what makes Batwing unique and interesting — if I just wanted to read a poorly-written Batman story, I’d read Batman: The Dark Knight (zing!). Instead, I’d like to read a title that acknowledges how different the psyche of a guilt-ridden child-soldier might drive him to fight crime. If “feeling bad about some kind of death that occurred during childhood” is as in-depth as we’re going to get on these issues, then it’s just a matter of time before Bruce and David team up with that kid from Old Yeller.
I think I could forgive an issue for a clunky closing pep-talk (that shit is hard to write), but there’s no reason the rest of the dialogue should suck so much. Check out this exchange from that opening fight scene:
“He’s Formidable”? Who talks like that? Never mind that Damian is far more likely to assume he can handle any situation, or that he’s ten — who talks like that? Oh, and that “expert advice”? That led directly to the armor blowing up. You were charitable to describe the tzeeeeeeeeeeeeing as “sound the suit makes before it self-destructs,” but Balogon actually describes it as “the security protocol that activates in the event of an unauthorized breach” — as in, the thing that happens when you open the suit from the outside. Forgetting that that’s kind of a shitty security system if there was ever a chance of being in the armor in the event of an unauthorized breach, this plan was only going to result in the armor blowing up — couldn’t Balogon have given them some warning?
We’ve been chiding this title for a while for so obviously broadcasting that Massacre is Isaac Zavimbe, but it really is embarrassing for these characters that it hadn’t occurred to anyone before. I guess I don’t know what David’s detective skills are (though if he’d seen any [literally any] of the Lord of the Rings movies, he should know that falling off a cliff necessarily means that a character is still alive), but Bruce is supposed to be the world’s best detective. Bruce never thought to mention that this guy looked 20 years too young to be Keita, or even that David saw Keita die just as much as he saw Isaac die? If it’s obvious to us, it should be obvious to the characters. Again, if I wanted to read characters that are much, much dumber than me, I’d read Batman: The Dark Knight (double zing!).
While I’m on the subject of Massacre; why does he wear that mask in the first place? Is he protecting his identity as wild jungle man so nobody threatens his pet monkey? Or maybe he’s protecting his identity as a presumed dead guy. It offers about as much protection as a Phantom of the Opera mask, so unless he was afraid that his soon-to-be-dead victims would judge his (kind of bad-ass) eye-scar, I can’t think of a reason for him to want to wear a damn mask. Also, if Kone wanted to exact revenge on his friends, couldn’t he have come up with a more direct plan than rehabilitating a jungle-man as his own private assassin? And how exactly does slaughtering the entire Tinasha police force fit into that goal of avenging unnecessary deaths?
I guess my point is that there’s more wrong here than just clunky dialogue. Many of the characters’ motivations and actions are thrown- and/or retconned-out whenever it serves the drama best to do so. The result is characters I either don’t recognize or don’t care about, neither of which is a particularly good problem. This is all the more frustrating because I know (and sequences like the final scene here demonstrate) that Winick can write compelling, character-driven stories. I think that goal got lost a bit in the exotic locations and controversial buzz-words that the opening issues were mired in, but it’s not too late to reclaim these characters. The last scene of this issue shows that these characters can be treated like people, and that that reality can generate interesting, genuine moments; I just hope it’s the shape of what’s to come.
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